In 2018, Neguel Morris began a drive from South Texas to the East Coast with a kilogram of heroin. Late one night, Morris stopped at the Wagin’ Cajun Truck Stop outside Lake Charles, Louisiana. He parked his rental car in a dark lot behind the truck stop casino among several large trucks and went to sleep in his car. Two uniformed deputies with the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office noticed Morris’s car while on foot patrol in the area.
As they began to walk towards his car, Morris started to drive away. One of the deputies flagged Morris down and Morris stopped. After asking Morris a few questions, the deputy took his driver’s license to confirm his identity and check for any open warrants. Shortly thereafter, two more deputies walked up and joined the other two at Morris’s car. After roughly two minutes of questioning, one of the deputies asked Morris to step out of the car.
Morris complied, and the deputy began a new round of questioning. “Here’s the deal man,” he told Morris, “We’re trying to make sure there is no illegal activity here. This is a high drug area. The more you cooperate, the faster you cooperate, the faster we’ll be done and let you go about your way.” The deputy asked Morris if he had been drinking, doing any drugs, or breaking into any trucks. Morris replied in the negative, and the deputy again advised him, “The more you cooperate, the faster we get done.”
The deputy’s questioning then turned to searching Morris. He asked Morris for consent to search his person and his car. When Morris agreed only to a personal search, the deputy asked again for consent to search his car. Morris declined, saying there was nothing in the car. The deputy asked a third time and Morris responded by asking if the deputy had a warrant. He said he did not need one if Morris would give his consent.
Morris started to respond, “There is nothing, I’m not doing nothing” but the deputy cut him off. “I already explained to you dude . . . This is a high drug area . . . We just want to make sure you’re not up to any type of shenanigans or shit. Like I said, the more you cooperate, the faster you cooperate, the faster we’ll be done with this. So, can we search your car?” Morris paused and said there was nothing in his car and that he was just trying to get some sleep.
The deputy then said “If you want to go back to sleep, let us…people who are innocent don’t—” Appearing exasperated, Morris then opened the back door of his car and said the deputies could conduct their search. After a brief search, the deputies discovered a glass pipe and a duct- taped package of about one kilogram of heroin.
Morris conditionally pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute heroin. The 5th remanded the motion to suppress back to the trial court and allowed Morris to withdraw his guilty plea.
We said in Chavez- Villareal that consent typically renders a search lawful, but when given during an illegal detention the consent may not be enough to dissipate the taint of the Fourth Amendment violation. Consent must be both voluntary and given as an independent act of free will in order to attenuate its connection with the illegal detention.
The district court determined that the deputies’ encounter with Morris was not a stop under the Fourth Amendment because the deputies did not physically block Morris’s egress, the encounter was brief, and, according to the district court, “nothing about the tone of the deputies or the questions asked would have made defendant feel he was not free to leave.”
This analysis failed to properly analyze several key facts in the record that are highly probative under our precedents. It also clearly erred in concluding that the deputies’ questioning, which expressly conditioned Morris’s release on his permitting the deputies to search his car, would not have made a reasonable person feel he was not free to leave.
The U.S. Supreme Court in California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991), said that a stop occurs when someone submits to a governmental show of authority that would cause a reasonable person to believe that she was not free to leave. Shows of authority include visual signals meant to bring a person to a stop, such as the familiar flashing red and blue lights of a police cruiser.
It is unclear how the command of a visual signal from officers on foot differs materially from the flashing lights of a police cruiser. Additionally, motorists are required by law in Louisiana to obey any direction from a police officer, including hand signals. La. R.S. 32:56.
Though little detail was provided at the suppression hearing as to how exactly the deputies “flagged down” Morris, the district court’s analysis erred in focusing on whether the deputies blocked Morris’s path, rather than examining whether they made a show of authority that a reasonable person would believe he was obligated to submit to. An officer’s visual signal for a motorist to stop—whether made by hand or lights and sirens—is such a show of authority.
Independently of this error, the district court made two additional errors in analyzing whether the deputies effected a stop in their encounter with Morris. First, the district court appears not to have considered whether the deputy’s order for Morris to exit his vehicle converted this encounter into a stop. We have held in similar circumstances that an officer’s order to exit a vehicle initiates a seizure. See Hill. See also McKinney, where seizure occurred when police ordered woman walking away from officers to return.
Second, the district court clearly erred in concluding that nothing about the tone of the deputies or the questions asked would have made Morris feel he was not free to leave. We can find no facts in the record to support this conclusion, only those that clearly show the opposite.
The deputy interrogating Morris repeatedly conditioned Morris’s release on his compliance with the deputy’s demands. The deputy told Morris four times during the encounter that the more Morris’s cooperated, the sooner the deputies would let him go. Put another way, Morris was not free to go until he cooperated with the deputy’s demands.
If the deputies stopped Morris without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they violated the Fourth Amendment. If they violated the Fourth Amendment, that may have tainted the consent Morris ultimately gave for the search. And if there was no valid consent, the evidence discovered in that search must be suppressed as fruits of the poisonous tree.
But it is not the place of our court to decide in the first instance the key issue of whether there was reasonable suspicion for the deputies’ stop. Reasonable suspicion is a fact-intensive inquiry, and in our judicial system the district court is the superior factfinder.
The Government argues that the deputies had reasonable suspicion even on the facts adduced at Morris’s suppression hearing. It points primarily to the fact that Morris was parked in an area of the truck stop where trucks usually park. The principal evidence supporting the proposition that cars do not typically park in this area of Wagin’ Cajun is that the deputies, drawing on their experience patrolling the truck stop, said so.
But as mentioned above, determining the credibility and weight of this testimonial evidence falls first to the district court.
The cases the Government cites also do not convince us that there would be reasonable suspicion no matter how the district court weighed this evidence. In Gutierrez-Parra, officers observed a FedEx tractor trailer pull into a vacant car wash and body shop late at night, followed by a white minivan. The officers became suspicious of the truck and minivan because all nearby businesses were closed, and they had never seen a FedEx truck in that area at that hour. Morris’s decision to park at an open business, near an entrance to that business, is not as inexplicable as the FedEx truck’s decision to park in a vacant car wash late at night when all the nearby businesses were closed.
The Government also points to Flowers. There, police officers surrounded a car parked in a convenience store parking lot because the occupants did not leave to go into the store after 10–15 seconds of observation. The court stated that the defendants’ location at this parking lot was determinative, not because it was an unusual place for them to be, but rather because it was at the exact streets where the officers had made a series of arrests for recent violent crimes and burglaries.
Though the deputies did testify that Wagin’ Cajun was a high crime area, there is no evidence in the record of a recent spate of crimes at the casino truck stop or other specific reasons to suspect cars parked in the truck area may be up to no good. Without this determinative fact, Flowers does not control.
The district court clearly erred in determining that no Fourth Amendment stop occurred when the deputies flagged down Morris’s car, or when they ordered him to get out and told him that his release depended on his cooperation in allowing them to search his car. We therefore VACATE the district court’s denial of Morris’s motion to suppress and REMAND for the district court to determine, consistent with this opinion, whether this stop and subsequent search complied with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.